Open main menu

BIRDS, The, a play by Aristophanes, first performed in 414 B.C. The happy thought of the Birds is the establishment of Cloud Cuckoo town or Nephelococcygia, a city in mid-air, in order to starve out the gods by cutting their communications with the earth and restore to the birds their rightful sovereignty. It was produced at the time of the Sicilian expedition. But the traces which some modern critics have detected of admonitory satire of that overambitious project are very faint and nebulous. The fleet had sailed, and even an Athenian audience would hardly have tolerated unpatriotic and ill-omened ridicule of an enterprise to which the entire power and the future of Athens were pledged. The comedy is then in the main a pure phantasia into which Aristophanes has distilled the quintessence of all the bird vocabulary, the bird lore, the bird mythology, the bird poetry of the Greeks.

Plausible and Hopeful with a raven and a jackdaw for guides are wandering in quest of some quieter city than litigious and party-ridden Athens. They knock at the doors of birdland and a long beaked runner bird “opens the wood” and admits them to the presence of King Hoopoe, the hero of Sophocles' recent tragedy. They have so to speak gone “through the looking glass.”

After some preliminary badinage, the great thought of the foundation of Bird City strikes Plausible. Hoopoe in a lovely lyric summons his mate, the nightingale, whose answering song is represented by a flute solo, and calls all the birds to council. The chorus of birds come fluttering, twittering and hopping in, amid the scurrilous comments of Plausible and Hopeful. They are at first very angry with Hoopoe for entertaining their enemy, man. The threatened conflict is resolved by the usual compromise and there follows a set debate on the magnificent new project submitted to them by the “two strangers from wise Hellas.” The birds are won over by Plausible's denunciations of the usurpations of the Olympians that have robbed them of their ancient prerogatives. The birds themselves expand and develop this theme in the magnificent anapaests amusingly paraphrased by Courthope in his charming ‘Paradise of Birds.’

We wish to declare how the birds of the air
All high institutions designed,
And holding in awe art, science and law,
Delivered the same to mankind.”

Matthew Arnold's Poor Mathias draws its inspiration from the same source.

Was it as the Grecian sings
Birds were born the first of things?”

Andrew Lang transposes it into the key of savage ethnology in his ‘Barbarous Bird Gods.’

We would have you to wit that on eggs though we sit and are spiked on the spit, and are baked in the pan,
Birds are older by far than your ancestors are, and made love and made war ere the making of man.”

Swinburne translates it to show how nearly English anapests match the resonant harmonies of the Greek.

Come on then ye dwellers by nature in darkness and like to the leaves' generations,
That are little of might, that are moulded of mire, unenduring and shadow-like nations.”

The plan once accepted, execution follows with magic celerity. The birds discover in themselves all needful capacities and resources.

There came a body of thirty thousand cranes
With stones from Africa in their craws and gizzards,
Which the stone curlews and stone chatterers
Worked into shape and finished. The sand martens
And mud larks too were busy in their department,
Mixing the mortar while the water birds
As fast as it was needed brought the water.” (Frere)

After the realization of the happy thought the last half of the comedy as usual illustrates its consequences in a series of farcical scenes. The new colony is visited by every type of ambitious, designing projector and fakir in Greece. And Plausible's dealings with the petitions and the pretensions of the poet, the priest, the political sycophant, the sophist, and designer of the city beautiful, afford material for so many scenes of parody, buffoonery and farce. Prometheus comes in camouflaged by an umbrella from the thunder bolts of Zeus. Winged Iris, messenger of the Homeric gods, in the rôle of a saucy soubrette is arrested and brought in by the guard for “flying about in other peoples chaos.” And her threats to tell “Pa Zeus” on them are answered by Plausible in terrific strains of more than Æschylean sublimity. Finally a deputation from the gods headed by Neptune and Heracles appears to treat for terms of peace. Heracles, the glutton, and shirtsleeve diplomatist, cannot resist the savor of a dish of rebel squabs which Plausible is ostentatiously preparing and he concedes a peace that yields to the birds the beautiful maiden Sovereignty herself. A riotous celebration of the marriage of Plausible and Sovereignty furnishes the motive of the song and dance and revelry of the concluding scenes.

There is an interesting account of a modern performance of the play at Cambridge, England, by Jebb in the Fortnightly Review 41.88.

Head of Greek Department, University of Chicago.